The best and worst things about digital media, depending on your perspective, are the same: Files can be copied endlessly, without degradation. This is why Napster worked, and, in a less direct sense, why you’ll find more or less the same music on Deezer, MOG, Muze, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Spotify.
How does a service stand out from the crowd, if it’s all pretty much the same music? Services distinguish themselves with design, features, editorial content, third-party apps, liberal “free” tiers, marketing, and/or sound quality.
That gives them a lot of room to play with. But what does it look like if a company tries instead to own and distribute completely original content — music recordings that only live in one place, so the only way to get them is to go there and pay for it?
This is the Daytrotter model, essentially. Active since 2006, the site records bands “live, in a studio, with no overdubs, auto tune or remixing,” and fans can listen to the sessions in real time (upcoming sessions) or later, using the archives. Daytrotter — not the band, or their record label — owns these sound recordings. So far, it has over 2,000 sessions you won’t find on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Rdio, or any other commercial service, other than DayTrotter. Users can subscribe after a seven day free trial. The cost: $2 per month, after a seven day trial. Daytrotter switched to this model last year, making more sessions available as it added the subscription requirement.
Some artists who record these sessions (examples: Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Kris Kristofferson, MGMT, Moby, Mumford and Sons (and Friends), Naughty By Nature, Carly Simon, Tame Impala, Vampire Weekend) do weird, alternate, versions of their music that might not be palatable to fans who just want to hear the hits the way they sound on YouTube; others manage to record faithful renditions of their album songs. In this way, the sessions resemble the venerable Peel Sessions, although some of these are video.
To make things fair for the artists, DayTrotter pays out “the standard/legal amount” to artists for streaming their music because they don’t own the publishing — just the sound recording. We don’t want to get mired in the copyright weeds here, so we’ll leave it at that. To sweeten the deal, DayTrotter cuts artists in 50/50 on profits from the Vinyl Series it recently started selling to memorialize some of the sessions.
A clear outlier, Daytrotter bucks the system by (re)creating scarcity in a digital world in at least three ways:
Vertical integration: Sort of like how Beats Audio is trying to own the whole chain of distribution, from the service to the headphone, DayTrotter goes even further by owning everything from the microphone to the copyright to the subscription. That means it can be…
“Patient Zero”: Daytrotter only releases content at one single point on the whole internet. Weird.
Paywall: Information might want to be free, but rent wants to get paid. Daytrotter Sessions include no permanent free tier. You can verify an email address for a seven day trial, but that’s it — otherwise you have to cough up a whole $2 per month.
Discouraging copying with vinyl and good feelings: It’s possible to convert vinyl to MP3, but who wants to bother, especially when the vinyl is something “special,” and “exclusive”-feeling, for which they paid? If you paid to be in a club, you probably don’t want just any old freeloader sneaking in — and the same goes for the members-only downloads.
It will be interesting to see how things go for Daytrotter, as it expands its commerce efforts, first with the subscription requirement, and now with a vinyl store.
Cofounder Sean Mueller tells Evolver.fm [update] that between 25,000 and 30,000 people use Daytrotter each day (free and paid), which is a sizable audience. If Daytrotter proves that this model of owning the entire process, from production to copyright to distribution, can be profitable, perhaps the concept will make sense on an even larger scale. The largest digital services — Pandora and Spotify — certainly have well-documented trouble in keeping up with payments for the copyrights they don’t own.
Note: This article originally quoted DailyDot‘s statistic from January 2012 that Daytrotter averages 1500 to 1700 users (free and paid) per day. Mueller says that in addition to that number being old, it was really about new users, rather than overall users.